PARIS — European Space Agency (ESA) governments will give formal approval of a two-launch mission to Mars in cooperation with Russia in mid-March following a rewrite of the original agreement that makes no significant changes to either side’s planned contributions, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 24.

Meeting with reporters at a new facility here housing the launch vehicle directorates for both ESA and the French space agency, CNES, Dordain said the delay in the agreement will not slow work done by Russian or European industry on the ExoMars project.

Dordain on Jan. 22 met in Moscow with Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to review the final agreement and to receive commitments from Russia’s ExoMars contractors that their work is compatible with a first ExoMars launch in early 2016.

That launch, aboard a Russian Proton rocket, will carry a European telecommunications orbiter and a descent-and-landing module. Russia is contributing experiments to this mission, and NASA is providing the telecommunications relay as well as support from California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in following the descent module.

The 2018 mission features a Russian lander and an ESA-built rover and will also be launched by Russia’s Proton.

Dordain said an agreement approved by ESA governments in late November had to be rewritten for reasons having to do with the specific translation of words from English to Russian. None of the mission’s characteristics was changed.

ESA’s ruling council meets March 13-14 and it is then that the final agreement will be formally accepted. Dordain said Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already validated the new text.

ESA needs some 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) to pay for its ExoMars elements. With 53 million euros in new funding, including from ExoMars leader Italy, having arrived in November, the agency has raised 903 million euros.

Dordain said this sum is enough to fund the entire 2016 mission and to complete substantial work on the European rover vehicle. The remaining funds will be solicited in the coming months from several sources, including Europe’s space science program, which operates with ESA funding but which makes its own decisions on mission priority.

Given the current funding status, Dordain said the contract for the 2016 mission will be signed in the coming months. “We don’t need the additional money before 2014 or 2015,” he said. “We have enough money so as not to put into jeopardy the timetable, which was the essential element.”

Dordain reiterated ESA’s disappointment that NASA was forced by budgetary pressure to eliminate most of its planned contributions to ExoMars, which included two United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets and one-half of the 2018 rover.

He declined to criticize the U.S. agency for proposing more recently to build a second version of its own large Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August. The second mission, with an estimated budget of more than $1 billion, would be launched in 2020. Several European nations are likely to have research hardware onboard the 2020 rover, he said.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.